Recently I have used this space to report on new and interesting books I had read and I do so again. Although most of my blog posts are behavioral ethics-themed, because that is my key interest and most of our Ethics Unwrapped videos are related to behavioral ethics, I am ranging farther afield today to write about and recommend Emily Esfahani Smith’s book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters (Crown, 2017). This is an accessible book that among other things surveys the academic literature on meaning.
Research by psychologists and others in recent years has made it clear that not only does an obsession with money not lead to happiness, an obsession with happiness itself does not do so either. Rather, what leads to real happiness is meaning. Smith quotes Robert Nozick for the obvious proposition that “There is more to life than feeling happy.” That said, living a life of meaning generally produces more happiness and better health.
Meaning, says Smith, “arises from our relationships to others, having a mission tied to contributing to society, making sense of our experiences and who we are through narrative, and connecting to something bigger than the self.” These four pillars of meaning (belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence) are the focus of most of Smith’s book as she ranges widely through academic literature (some of it produced by professors here at the University of Texas such as Jamie Pennybaker, David Yeager, and Marlone Henderson).
Meaning’s first pillar, a sense of belonging, is its biggest driver, says Smith. Rugged individualism is great, but studies show that it also correlates strongly with youth suicide. High quality connections with other people, which are often cultivated by acts of compassion, are a cornerstone of a sense of belonging. As Smith notes:
“The search for meaning is not a solitary philosophical quest, as it’s often depicted, and as I thought it was in college—and meaning is not something we create within ourselves and for ourselves. Rather, meaning largely lies in others. Only through focusing on others do we build the pillar of belonging for both ourselves and for them. If we want to find meaning in our own lives, we have to begin by reaching out.”
The second pillar of meaning, purpose, has two dimensions—a goal toward which we are always working and a contribution to the world. Studies show that 80% of young people between 12 and 22 have not yet developed a clear sense of where their lives are going, but those who can develop a sense of identity and tie it to a purpose are likely to be successful in their pursuits and satisfied by their lives. The research shows, though, that “a purpose-driven person is ultimately concerned not with  personal benefits but with making the world a better place.” Surveys de monstrate that the people who find the most meaning in their careers are in the service of others—clergy, English teachers, surgeons, psychiatrists, and the like. Other people can also achieve satisfaction by adopting a service mindset, by framing their careers not just as custodians who sweep floors, to pick one profession, but as workers who are contributing meaningfully to their organization’s grand purpose.
We all tell ourselves stories about our lives and research shows that people who are driven to contribute to society tend to tell redemptive stories (“bad things happened to me and I overcame them”) rather than contamination stories (“bad things happened to me and ruined my life”). The best news here is that there are various techniques we can use to revise and improve the narrative of our life stories. Though naturally constrained by the facts, these improvements to our life stories can also improve the measure of meaning we find in our lives.
Spirituality is typically, though not always, the source of the fourth pillar of meaning—transcendence (rising above the everyday world to experience a higher reality). Psychologists say that those who experience transcendence feel their sense of self with its petty concerns fade away and then feel more deeply connected to other people and the rest of the world. This leads to a sense of peace and well-being.
As I move well into my autumn years, it is becoming clear to me that the most important question with which I wrestle daily is: Have I led a meaningful life? If I’d read Smith’s book when I was 17, I’d have had 50 more years to work with some intentionality to produce a satisfactory answer to that question.